Op-Ed: U-M’s reopening plans — a Wolverine culture of carnage

Friday, August 28, 2020 - 7:03pm

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Over the next couple of weeks, universities across the United States will welcome back faculty, staff and students in the midst of the recent and sustained national surge in COVID-19 cases. The University of North Carolina, University of Notre DameNorth Carolina State University and University of Alabama showed us the dangers of bringing students back in this environment. Over 100 students have tested positive for COVID-19 within the first week of classes at all four universities. Like Notre Dame and NC State, UNC responded to the growing public-health crisis by going fully remote for this semester. Faculty, staff and students had made this demand for months, vociferously opposing UNC’s reopening plan and condemning the administration’s initial responses to early COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.

Here in Ann Arbor, the University of Michigan continues to plan for in-person, hybrid and remote courses. University Housing aims to fill residences at about 75 percent capacity while requiring only one COVID-19 test before move-in, as well as an opt-in surveillance testing scheme for residents. In a town hall, University President Mark Schlissel told the community, “I wish you could see the scientific basis of our decisions” about the reopening plans. His Ethics and Privacy Committee Report said the University “has a substantial obligation to help students, students’ families, faculty, and staff be aware of (i) the actual, evolving health risks … and (iii) our actual and projected levels of success, as best we can gauge them.” 

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, Lecturers’ Employee Organization, tenure track faculty and staff have all requested access to the modeling and reports that informed the Fall plans. Yet, U-M administrators still refuse to release them. The University has chosen not to enter any meaningful dialogue with its workers and students by excluding them from the decision-making process and hiding information from them about the risks we are walking into in a few weeks. 

Since May, GEO has been asking to be included in decisions, starting with an open letter signed by over 1,800 members of the U-M community. For over four months, U-M failed to address any of the demands and actually withheld information on reopening from the entire community until late June. In response, faculty members petitioned for the ability to opt-out of in-person teaching without penalties. At the time of publication, they gained 612 signatures. Shortly thereafter, staff circulated a petition, gaining 261 signatures, requesting that “all staff … be given equal opportunity and full autonomy to determine whether they return to campus or continue to work remotely.” The University has not publicly responded. Despite the calls for transparency, inclusion and choice in the reopening plans, the University continues to ignore its entire community. 

This blatant disregard for public health and people’s lives has led all spheres of the U-M community to come together in opposition to the University’s reopening plan. Our calls for remote teaching, increased testing capacity and overall transparency are designed to ensure the safety of the entire U-M community, including the year-round residents of Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn. Instead, the University’s poor leadership has resulted in departments — like the Stamps School of Art & Design — forcing new students to commit to being in-person, and assigning mostly lecturers, several of them new to the school, to teach those classes regardless of the instructors’ preferences. Lecturers are both being put at high risk for contracting COVID-19 and are being laid off in alarming frequency — 41 percent of lecturers on the University of Michigan-Flint campus were laid off this summer. The University has made the conscious decision to force in-person classes down the throats of the communities it serves in a haphazard and secretive manner.

In addition, University Housing forced all residents to sign an amendment that gives the University the authority to evict positive COVID-19 residents and protects the University from any liability at the same time. If that weren’t enough, the University’s Board of Regents approved a 1.9 percent tuition increase at Ann Arbor and Dearborn campuses and a 3.9 percent tuition increase for Flint campus, as well as a $50 COVID-19 fee for all enrolled students. 

The reality remains that universities knew about COVID-19 for over five months before they released their reopening plans. There was time to engage with GEO, LEO, faculty, staff, students and parents in a transparent manner. In particular, President Schlissel called testing the entire U-M community “science fiction,” which he justified by reiterating an old, homophobic and inaccurate claim about HIV testing — we shouldn’t test people because “testing can give you a false sense of security. That happened in the HIV epidemic when people got a negative test and presented it to their sex partner and spread (the) disease nonetheless.” Contrary to this statement, regular and asymptomatic testing is an essential part of HIV public health.

COVID-19 remains fairly controlled in Michigan compared to other parts of the country. But the University’s reopening plan could quickly undo that, as the Ann Arbor Public School Board noted when they decided to go fully online because of the University’s reckless reopening plan. Not only is the reopening plan unsafe and unjust, but it is dangerous, potentially deadly and puts all residents of Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint at risk. This is yet another strain on the not always rosy relationship between the U-M community and the permanent residents of Ann Arbor: City Councilmember Julie Grand noted the increased tension the University’s decisions have created within this relationship, stating, “I don’t like that this (reopening plan) pits students against people living in the community.”

At this point in the pandemic, the University knows that COVID-19 will kill faculty, staff, students and their families and neighbors. If someone survives the disease, there remains about a 33 percent chance of “prolonged illness even among persons with milder outpatient illness, including young adults.” All of this led to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer calling for all public universities to not bring their students back in the fall due to the pandemic and likelihood of in-residence semesters spreading the virus throughout the state. The University of Michigan’s plans for the fall term contradict the governor’s advice, as well as that of federal and state public health experts.

The University’s reopening plan is eerily similar to UNC’s plan — which has been referred to as a “clusterfuck” due to the explosion of positive COVID-19 cases across the university. How much longer before the University, in particular President Schlissel, admits that we cannot safely house or teach in-person this semester? Will we have to wait for hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases on campus within the first week of classes, as the UNC, Notre Dame, NC State and UA communities have experienced? Or will the plan be to push forward to “make it through the semester,” until someone in our community dies? And if that were to happen, where the loss of life acts as the tipping point for the University — is the price of an in-residence experience worth the lives of service and custodial workers and other campus staff?

The authors are from the Graduate Employees’ Organization COVID-19 Caucus and the Lecturers’ Employee Organization and can be reached at covidchair@geo3550.org and communications@leounion.org, respectively.